In one Saratoga Springs classroom, an ancient art is meeting new media. WAMC’s Jesse King reports on poetry and podcasting at Maple Avenue Middle School.
English teacher Nicole Monroe can officially add “producer and host” to her resume. For the past two months, students in her Honors class have forgone essays and used podcasts to present, dissect, and discuss a poem of their choice. The class just wrapped it first “season,” but Monroe says Room C125 was really born about a year ago, while trying rejuvenate her lesson plan.
“I read an article about podcasting with young people [being] kind of like, this unfilled niche – especially things created by kids," she says. "And I knew that, if this was an empty horizon, it might be exciting for kids.”
With the help of school funding, Monroe purchased a small, all-in-one podcasting kit – and before long students were gathering around the mic. Working in pairs, they examine each poem’s word choice and punctuation, and think about how the poet’s history and time period affect its interpretation. Monroe asks students to prepare to record with as much research as possible – but to avoid writing their answers down.
"I didn't want this to just be a Q&A where I asked the question and they read me their answer — that's kind of pointless," says Monroe. "I wanted this to be able to kind of veer off into conversations if it needed to, and if they led me there. And a lot of them did!"
In one episode, eighth grader Maddie Pyle and her partner, Luna, share Evie Shockley’s “Color Bleeding.” Pyle says the poem’s colors symbolize Shockley’s emotions, and wonders whether she was sad, or “blue,” at the time. Monroe asks the girls whether they noticed any other literary elements in the piece.
“We had simile – an example of that was ‘I carried the blues around like a baby," say Pyle and Luna. "We had alliteration also: ‘Lapis lapped my fingers.’”
“So why do you think alliteration – why do you think poets use that? What’s it for?”
“I think it’s good for like, rhythm in the poem," Pyle answers.
Monroe says students have brought her a range of works, from Shockley to Robert Frost and Shel Silverstein. By providing a stage, she says the mic pushes students to prepare and actively participate in their interviews. Each conversation is published in full, with little editing. Ultimately, Monroe says Room C125 has helped her better get to know her students, and gauge their understanding.
She’s not alone in thinking that – teachers across the country are turning to podcasts as both in-class entertainment and educational tools. In 2018, NPR and the New York Times launched podcasting contests, inviting students to produce their own stories – and providing teachers with lesson plans, to teach them the ropes, too.
But what do students think?
“I thought it was, overall, a really fun project to do – especially because we don’t usually do that sort of that thing in our classes, we usually just do research and essays and stuff," says Pyle. "So I thought this was a really fun opportunity to kinda connect with partners, and come up with what we were going to say.”
Monroe publishes each episode on Spotify for students and parents to enjoy. Since its debut, other Maple Avenue teachers have considered starting their own projects. Monroe says she’d like to open the podcast to all of her classes, explore new topics, and eventually let students take the wheel.
“It’s great that I can show them how to do this, it’s great that I can press the record button – they don’t know a lot of the technological side, they really just know what they brought to the table, which was information. I want them to be able to do this by themselves," notes Monroe. "I want them to be able to think of the things they want to say, and then get them out there into the world.”
Maple Avenue Middle School has more than 1,400 students in grades 6 through 8.